The Landscapes and Flowers of Bożena Lesiak
It has happened twice in the history of contemporary European painting that the landscape or, more precisely, the painters’ attitude towards the landscape, launched changes that have taken place not only within aesthetics but also within ideas. The change first took place at the turn of the 13th century in Italy, when the standard golden backgrounds of religious paintings were replaced by representations of natural landscape and architecture. The second one took place more than a hundred years ago in France, when Impressionism was born. However deeply motivated with understanding of the world, the reasons for turning to the landscape were, what used to be emphasised in both cases was the inspiring influence of science. Renaissance artists found the linear perspective a revelation, whereas the impressionists discovered the new chromatic theories. Although the two discoveries have lost their appeal long ago, the Renaissance breakthrough making the painter treat his or her work as “a window to the world” (Alberti) and the impressionist doctrine recommending the use of pure hues of the solar spectrum are professed and applied spontaneously even nowadays by those artists who, following the example of the Venetian cityscape, the Dutch landscape, the French Barbizon school, and last but not least the impressionists, decide to make the landscape their main artistic pursuit. Their number is not insignificant because the landscape, due to the universal nature of the stimuli it offers: the scale of space, movement of the clouds, the change of light and colour, and even temperature and scent, can become a fascinating artistic challenge.
Bożena Lesiak clearly expresses her emotional relationship with the landscape. These declarations go, naturally, beyond verbal declarations and go further than just the choice of landscape as the most frequent subject. Obviously, the natural connections with landscape can be found not only in those of her paintings where fields, trees, houses and clouds play the leading role. The series of flowery bouquets, still lifes with pitchers, bottles, and fruit, even the figural works all of these evoke light, space, and movement suitable for contact with an open landscape. Bottles and pitchers resemble architecture in the open spaces of still lifes, flowers burst from their stalks pressed together into tight, trunklike bouquets, while people experience a vegetable nature, as if it was not haemoglobin but chlorophyll that filled their veins.
The landscape has accompanied Bożena throughout her whole painting career. First came the chilly landscapes of the early spring in the Tatra mountains, which she created in the late 1970s. Than there was a trip to the South of France: the bright landscape of Provence under the burning sun of postimpressionists Later on, there came the encounter with the delicate and slightly timeless landscape of Tuscany, and eventually Argentina. The attempts to answer the call flowing from the singular auras, distinctive radiance, individual transparency of air, different skies. Her paintings endeavour to express the essence of the landscape and not its actual topography. “The Earth, the sky, and the tree are my support,” the painter has confessed. Huge strips of red soil, sheets of yellow fields, green margin of a forest, the wall of a white house, a heavy navy blue sky. Gouache and oil landscapes are dramatic and monumental: they are groups of synthetic plains with nervous, agitated texture, where the dark shades clash violently with the bright spots of pure principal colours. These painting are loaded with power which takes its origin in the fascination with the landscape experienced or committed to memory. Yet already during the process of creation, the object of fascination changes towards what is popularly referred to as ‘the painter’s cuisine’: this something that is to provide the painted answer to the emotions evoked by a view rather than to duplicate the scene itself. Whether on canvas or paper, her works involve numerous changes, juxtaposing the smooth and rough surfaces, the rhythms of brush strokes, scratches, and washouts. All this to make the painting express the wind or the heat, the tranquillity or the alarm, the clarity of air or the fog. The rapid and brisk brush strokes, as if made in a hurry, together with the broad brush marks are the most important of means of expression and effective communication they let the echoes of the Fauvists surface together with the Soutine’s or Vlaminck’s nervous painting style. Some of the compositions, verging on the abstract, bring to mind the works by de Stael and by his admirer, Czapski particularly from the last period of his expressionist art.
Flowers are the second most numerous group of paintings: their beauty results from the experience Bożena gained while working on her landscapes. The painted bouquets are built to resemble the landscapes with but one difference: while the landscape is dominated by the horizontal arrangement of hills, fields, and clouds, these are dominated by the vertical movement, the rising, the growth. The bouquets of tulips, tied tight as sheaves, bring trees to mind while the backgrounds against which we see them turn into skies full of light.
The tulip has made a similar career in painting to the one that the rose made in poetry. Tulips, made popular in the 17th century, at the time of the true Dutch ‘tulipmania’, remind of the fortunes and bankruptcies of their growers, of flower markets, of buying and selling activity, and of cases of exchanging whole estates for but one bulb of a particularly rare line. The tulip stepped powerfully into the art of painting, bringing the bounty of thousands of wonderful works. Until now, they have been popularly associated with the Netherlands and Dutch art. Travelling there by night, one can see the sky hanging low over the horizon pierced by spears of light used to nurse the greenhouse collections.
Bożena’s tulips are full of power: they do not charm with their impermanence, they are not chimerical, they do not try to wheedle. They tightly fill the rectangular canvases or paper sheets, hardly fitting within them, and sometimes trying to grow beyond the edges. Bo¿ena constructs her paintings the way the plants grow: by gesture, by energy, and by the colour. The act of creating a painting reproduces the act of natural creation: it is the impetus, the power, the vitality, the dainty freshness. The colour scales of these ‘group portraits’ of flowers are often beautiful, especially when compared to the landscapes, where the power of the painter’s gesture is the power of full, pure colours. Here the colour seems to be hesitating and, loosing no resonance, heading towards the broken, more quiet tones. The greens are more varied, violets and pinks begin to appear, and the peachy-apricot tones turn up between the red and white. Though the petals may be sharp and may hurt, they may yet turn into luminance vibrant with movement. The stalks and the leaves mark the active upward motion towards open space. It would be difficult to find in these paintings the care that the bygone painters exercised to render the intricate ornaments on the petals of various flowers. Here, it is all about the growing of a new type of painting: based on the trunk and crown principle, each of them like the landscapes can each have a different expression.
There is also a series of paintings where human figures appear. All alone or in twos, never more than three female figures, sitting next to or opposite one another. There may be cups or glasses at their side: there is apparently some kind of meeting going on. The women, however, are not too eager to have a conversation. They are thoughtful, half absent: they just actually exist. Their undefined, slightly cytoplasmic bodies fill up the space. They sit on their chairs and sofas and that is where their being ends. Sometimes a ridiculous Lilliputian man strays into this world of women with no apparent reason. What is life in the women disappears underneath their skin, underneath their dress, and underneath their lipstick: it is invisible and untouchable. There is something vegetable in those white-complexioned phantoms colourful like flowers. Their world is inaccessible; we will get to know nothing about them. They exist and continue. There is nothing more but that. Compared to the landscapes and bouquets with their dramatic tension and expression, where the biological forces struggle, and which Bożena sees with a friendly or fascinated eye, the world of humans can be ridiculous, brimming with semblances, and sometimes at the most nostalgia in some attempts at the portrait. Let us wait: maybe, one day even this world will be apprehended by the dangerous or the redemptive elements which will carry them from the limbo of existence to the world of life.
Cracow, September 2001
translated by Julia Lesiak and Piotr Krasnowolski